Speaking to 32 year-old jockey Sean Levey about growing up in Africa and racing in Britain and Ireland, you will be left in no doubt that he remains uncomfortable with being labelled a ‘Black’ jockey. Levey prefers ‘African’, or as he joked after winning his first British classic, “Wakanda Forever.”
The son of a former Irish jockey and trainer, Levey was born in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and from an early age was acutely aware of his multiracial background. “I have two Black brothers and a sister but I’m what you say mixed-heritage. On the bus home from school they spoke about me in siSwaty thinking I didn’t understand because they saw me as white.”
The story of how his father Mick met his mother Tini underlines this sense of being from many places: “He used to do an apprenticeship for trainer Ron Smyth but had to sign on for 7 years in those days, so decided to travel to Germany, Switzerland and Sweden before eventually settling in Swaziland.”
His father made a name for himself there by building the first racecourse in the country with the sponsorship of local hotels. He also loved his boxing, building a team which he eventually brought to the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Levey though never had the remotest interest in racing, until one day he went with a friend to a local riding school specialising in teaching kids with backgrounds outside of the equine industry.
Almost 20 years on from those first riding classes, Levey would become the first Black jockey, but more pertinently to him the first African-born jockey, to win an English classic when guiding Billesdon Brook to Guineas glory in June 2018.
Marvel’s Black Panther had come out a few months earlier, and the film’s rallying cry had been adopted by successful Black athletes around the world. Thus, when asked by ITV correspondent Matt Chapman how it felt to be the first Black jockey to win an English Classic, taken aback, replied “Wakanda Forever”, a comment not picked up by either Chapman or ITV cameras.
The spirit of the phrase fits Levey, who primarily identifies as African: “I’m born on two sides of the coin, with my father Irish and my mother Swazi along with most of my family on my father’s side being from Croydon.”
It was to Croydon that Levey and his family initially moved when he was just 12. The culture shock was, understandably, intense. “The only way of picturing it was like being thrown into a cage – Swaziland has no boundaries while in Croydon it’s all walls and no freedom.”
Following a tough two months, the family then moved to Ballydoyle, Co. Tipperary, home to legendary trainer Aidan O’Brien’s training facilities. As during his formative years in Eswatini, Levey’s interest in racing was not immediate, and it wasn’t until his father got in touch with pony racing trainer Tony Began in Ballinasloe that he really fell in love with the sport.
Thereafter Levey rode as an apprentice for O’Brien, in which meritocratic environment race was never an issue. However, he still felt unfulfilled. “I lived in the blanket of Ballydoyle and didn’t want to wonder ‘What if?’ in ten years’ time.”
That sense of adventure led Levey to trainer David O’Meara in York, although initially things didn’t go smoothly. “The gig he sold over the phone was not the one I found when I came, but I didn’t want to fall out with him so decided to go freelance which he fully supported. That’s where my brilliant agent Lorraine Ellison came in, getting me riding out in five stables across the North per day.”
Levey’s English career took off from there, but in time he realised the freelance lifestyle was unsustainable. “I’d be waking up at 6 in the morning and not sleeping till 12, as well as clashing with owners over what horses I would ride.”
And so another move was needed, this time down south to Richard Hannon’s stables in Marlborough, Wiltshire. It was on a Saturday at Haydock where he earned his job at Hannon’s with three successful trial rides, gaining the support of head lad Tony Gorman.
After riding 175 winners from 2013-2015, 2016 brought what should have been one of his first major career highlights with his first Derby ride. However, the event became more about his ethnicity and race than his riding, which made Levey uncomfortable at the time.
“It’s all perception. I was reminded by Black people, whether it be friends or family, that I was “latte”…one time I went to the Valley of Kings in Egypt and was dragged from the tourist line to the local line because I ‘looked Egyptian’.
Put one white jockey and one Black jockey in front of an owner, with no previous records of their careers, the owner would probably say, “Has the Black jockey even rode before?” You see, it’s a presumption and a stereotype until proven otherwise.”
Levey reflects fondly on the time he’s spent at Richard Hannon’s, and sees it as a model for the rest of the sport. “In terms of people, it is probably the most diverse racing yard in the country, and a yard renowned for going against the grain, which is precisely what racing must do if it’s to open its doors to the world.”
One gets a clear sense from speaking to Levey that there is much more to him than riding horses. He is under no illusions as to what can and needs to be done in his sport.
“You’d love more young Black people to give it a go, but they don’t because it’s too traditional and [because of] the stereotypes that exist. I rode with lads in Barbados who were excellent riders, and asked them, “Why don’t ye come ride in England?” and they said they did but just didn’t get on.
“There are very intelligent people in this industry that have the know-how to know what needs to be done. A more youthful and futuristic approach is required in racing now to make things more diverse and accessible to everyone and you need only look at the example set by an extremely traditional sport like golf with Tiger Woods over the last two decades.”
Racing has not been completely impervious to change, and it’s in the recent success of female jockeys that Levey sees a precedent.
“There have always been women in racing, but Hayley Turner set the bar four years ago and the media have done a great job in expanding it ever since. Women like Hollie Doyle, Rachel Blackmore and Josephine Gordon didn’t just break barriers, but made them disappear. So if it’s wanted to be done, it can.”
“If it’s wanted to be done, it can.” Not perhaps as snappy as ‘Wakanda Forever’, but as a starting point for meaningful change it could hardly be bettered.